Ever wanted to go somewhere exotic? Ever wanted to go somewhere exciting and different? Why not try Iraq? The Circular spoke to Ollie Jenks who travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan for the trip of a lifetime, to experience the war-torn country.
Q: First things first Ollie, the obvious question most people would ask is, why Iraq?
A: Why did I go to Iraq? Well, first of all, I suppose I´ve always had an interest in being places far removed from Western society. I spent some time in Iran in 2018 and was absolutely fascinated by it all, and I was invited to do a bit of charity work with Syrian refugees in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. So I spent a few days there and took the opportunity to see what else was around in the area.
Q: How did you get there?
A: It was actually straight forward, it actually feels easier to get into Iraq than getting back to Heathrow at times. We flew there with Austrian Airlines, actually. Coming from the UK, you are given a 30-day visa on arrival. I must stress that we went to Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an autonomous region controlled by the Kurds. We spent a couple of days in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region. It´s home to one of the earliest civilizations in the world. From there we went into the mountains for some hiking and then to Duhok, close to the borders of Turkey and Syria, which is where the refugee camp was.
Q: Did you ever feel unsafe?
A: Good question, and it´s something I´ve been asked a lot. Honestly, no not at all. Now, I did have an app on my phone to give us live updates on what was happening in the region, and there were riots in Bagdad during our time in the country.
The war still feels very present though, wherever you go there are Peshmerga soldiers, and there are a lot of checkpoints. Fortunately, most people thought we were American so we didn´t have to show our documents very often.
At one point we were close to Mosul, where there was a lot of fighting, and many of the buildings are still destroyed. In Kurdistan, we actually met a lot of people who had moved there from Mosul and Bagdad during the war, although no one really talks about the war.
Q: What was the strangest or most memorable thing that happened to you?
A: Something weird or memorable happened every day. For example, our first day there we ended up in the middle of a military parade. By far though, the weirdest thing that happened was meeting the Yazidis, a small ethnoreligious group, often the target of genocide. We went to their equivalent of Mecca, a place called Lalish. For whatever reason, they took a shine to me and my friend and put on a big feast for us, at which we were given the honour if eating sheep eyes, the taste of which I can´t even describe.
Q: Was that the highlight of the trip?
A: It was definitely a highlight, but, as cliche as it sounds, the real highlight of the trip was the people. We were always offered lifts and people always stopped and asked if we needed anything.
The Kurds are amazing, lovely people with a lot of hospitality. A lot of people were curious about why we were there, if we were working for the army, or UNICEF or other NGOs, and were very surprised when we told them we were there on holiday.
We also visited one of Saddam Hussein´s old palaces, which is now a telecommunications tower.
Q: What would you say to those who want to go to Iraq?
A: Do it. I strongly recommend going just because it´s so far removed from what people in the UK and Ireland are told about the Middle East.
Do your research if you want to go. While it was safe while we were there, a couple of days after we left Iraq, President Trump pulled out American troops out of Syria, which left the Kurds in Syria open to attacks from the Turkish Army. While this was in Syrian Kurdistan, it obviously affects the whole Kurdish region. And, as I mentioned before, there were quite a few riots in Bagdad, as well as Basra.
Once again, it is really safe, but make sure you do your research before going.